Company News / 29.05.2012

Driving Operational Excellence at a Startup

One thing that Uniphore prides itself on is our operational excellence. We make sure that each and every employee can see the flow of value to the customer, and that as a company, we embrace teamwork and problem solving to achieve continuous improvement throughout the organization. In order to achieve this operational excellence, we need to have, well…an excellent operator. His name is Ravi Saraogi, and he’s co-founder and COO of Uniphore. Below, Ravi talks a little bit about the role of a COO in a startup, and how he designed and implemented Uniphore’s operational processes in order to keep our customers happy and our employees stimulated:

 What exactly does a COO do at a startup?

Being part of a company from its inception is an amazing experience. In the beginning, Umesh and I were just trying to put the basics in place, and lay the foundation for our business, day by day, and brick by brick. Then suddenly we found that the foundation had been laid, that our building was ready. In other words, Uniphore had passed the phase where the product, customer and distribution model have been identified. It’s at this moment where we knew that operational expertise would be absolutely critical, and my role as COO began to take form.

Many people asked questions when we officially gave ourselves designations: Can a startup afford COO? Should a startup like Uniphore have a COO at all, or just a CTO? Someone even asked me “Why do you call yourself a COO? Doesn’t it sounds like a person fixing wires, fixing nuts and bolts?“

At the end of the day, the designation doesn’t really matter. As a founder in a late stage startup, I do of course still wear many hats.  But in general, my role as COO is to focus on making sure our engineers are building the appropriate applications as per customer requirements, and that everything is operating as smoothly as possible. Umesh, as CEO, largely focuses on long-term strategy as well as pursuing sales and marketing opportunities. There’s some overlap but it’s important for us to know who takes the lead in different tasks, and to whom each employee should look for guidance.

If I’m doing my job well, then being COO means I enable my company to get the technology work done on an every day basis, aligned with the big picture view of what’s going on across the company, and thus delivering the best possible experience to our customers.

What’s a typical day like for you?

The day starts long before I enter the office.  When I wake up in the morning, I check my phone and inevitably find 30 new emails – reminding me to bring the demo to the client meeting that day, or develop our mHealth application in another language, or review the conclusions from our latest R&D efforts. Sometimes, there’s even a thank you note from a customer =).

All these emails start to cloud my head with 1,000 tasks and to-dos, and my mind starts racing. But before these questions get the best of me, I take a breath, remember how far we’ve come already, and remind myself that today this company will take one more step towards greatness. It’s this thought that prepares me to step in the office, get the ball rolling, and put all the pieces in place to ensure that the next morning I also wake up to a thank you note from a customer.

The morning is usually focused strictly on operational updates: reports on the uptime of our applications, project updates from each team, average transaction details from the previous day, etc. Then I’ll switch over to accounts mode, where I check to verify that our vendor payments have been made, that we’ve received our monies from clients, and that our cash balances for salaries and other disbursements are accurate. I then take the operational and account updates, summarize them, and communicate appropriate updates to each client, to ensure that we’re always on the same page, and that expectations from both sides are being met. I also take this opportunity to launch into my sales mode, asking additional customers if they could use voice to further enable mobility in other elements of their business – or if they know any other businesses with similar needs.

At the rate that Uniphore is growing, I also dabble in HR every day, knowing that I’ll soon need new engineers for increasing levels of customers. So part of every day now goes to reviewing profiles, taking interviews, ensuring standards of conduct, etc.

All this may sound like a lot of work, but things were actually much more challenging two years back. New to the COO role, I suddenly had to develop a plan for each and every process and procedure that goes into this company. What were the human capacity and skills required to implement the projects we would pursue? The funding required? The potential challenges and risks we would face, and the strategies we would use to mitigate them? The list goes on and on. I knew that the way I chose to answer these questions would define the culture of the company, and shape its vision and growth path for years to come.  But now, these questions have mostly been answered, through trial and error, and operations are in full swing.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

One of the biggest challenges is building and maintaining a passionate, high-performing team, which isn’t easy in a fast-growing startup. It seems that there is always some vacancy to be filled, but we don’t want to rush into hiring for the sake of hiring. We’re committed to finding people with intelligence, passion for technology, and, most importantly, a buy-in to the vision of the company.

Fortunately, we have managed to find a young, enthusiastic team that delivers tremendous effort to run the show day in day out. When I was doing appraisals this year, I was so happy to hear the staff calling it “Our Uniphore,” and referring to their professional accomplishments as “something that will propel the company to the next level.” Every employee knows they’re more than just a cog in the machine, but an integral part of our success, and the success of a technology that will benefit society at large. By staying on that message and fostering that culture, we manage to find great employees, even as a startup.

What’s the most exciting/enjoyable part of your job?

Without a doubt, the most enjoyable part of my job is hearing stories directly from customers about how we’ve impacted their businesses and the lives of their customers. For example, we just did a case study and learned that our voice-based enterprise mobility solution helped one of India’s leading NBFCs increase its field agent’s productivity by 100%, reduce travel costs by 50%, and virtually eliminated fraud. We’re incredibly proud do deliver those kinds of benefits to a market that badly needs them.

About Uniphore: Uniphore Software Systems is the leader in Multi lingual speech-based software solutions. Uniphore’s solutions allow any machine to understand and respond to natural human speech, thus enabling humans to use the most natural of communication modes, speech, to engage and instruct machines. Uniphore operates from its corporate headquarters at IIT Madras Research Park, Chennai, India and has sales offices in Middle East (Dubai, UAE) as well as in Manila, Philippines.